My copy of the book, The Wine Trials, arrived last week (that's the Wine Curmudgeon on page XIII in the blind tasters credits). The Wine Trials, of course, is the 189-page effort from author and critic Robin Goldstein that shows that wine drinkers pay more attention to price than they do quality.
Two things struck me as I thumbed through the book:
One of the most common questions I get in my Cordon Bleu classes is whether wine can be paired with fast food. This usually comes from students, trying to be wise guys, who do not yet realize that the Wine Curmudgeon is all knowing and all powerful in the classroom.
Actually, I welcome the question. Showing how to pair wine with a Big Mac (think inexpensive California merlot, with some tannins and acid but lots of blueberry fruit) helps demystify the subject for the students. It also helps change their way of thinking, since most don’t realize that wine is something to drink every day, and just not on special occasions.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who gets questions about this. There is a lot more advice about this floating in the cyber-ether than I realized, whether it’s arguing whether an oenophile is allowed to do it (of course!) or White Castles with beaujolais nouveau. Which sounds mighty damn good.
And then there was this, from the Click Wine Group, which does eight labels from $10-$15, including Fat Bastard. It sent a news release around this week touting its wines’ compatibility with pizza, chicken fingers, takeout Chinese, and even burritos. Some of the pairings seemed a stretch (cabernet sauvignon with a grilled chicken burrito, for instance), but several were excellent, like riesling with a spicy chicken stir fry and a Spanish red blend with barbecued chicken pizza.
The release makes the point that Americans are not only cooking less, but ordering more takeout and delivery. This, it notes, is a reason to pair fast food with wine. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but it does miss the point I make to my classes. Wine goes with anything, regardless of where you got if from.
The Wine Curmudgeon has a closet full of free wine, samples from producers who want me to try their stuff and write about it. But I use my money to buy Solaz — and a lot of it. And why is that?
Because it's cheap, around $7. And it's well-made. And it tastes good. What more can a wine drinker ask for?
Solaz, as regular visitors here know, is the wonderfully inexpensive wine brand from Spain's Osborne, one of my favorite producers. The various red blends have long been in the $10 Wine Hall of Fame, and the white has been in a couple of years. It's made from the viura grape, a mostly Spanish varietal that produces clean, crisp and floral wines with just a bit of apple fruit. Serve this chilled with salads (I had it the other night with a chef's salad with Russian dressing), Mediterranean food like hummus or bulgur salad, or on its own.
There are many reasons why the Wine Curmudgeon is so fond of this wine. The Nobilo is cheap, still around $10 despite the horribly weak U.S. dollar. It's well-made, displaying all the aromas and flavors that New Zealand sauvignon blanc should have.
And, perhaps most importantly, it's tremendous fun to taste with people who aren't familiar with this kind of wine. That's because New Zealand sauvignon blanc has a tell-tale red grapefruit smell and taste. Which means half the people who taste it for the first time hate it, and half of them think it's as good a wine as they've ever had. This difference of opinion is one of the things I love most about wine. Each of us is different, and what one person wants no part of another wants a case of. If only the wine snobs, with their scores and magazines, understood this.
Serve this wine chilled with anything remotely resembling seafood, from crab cakes to boiled shrimp to tuna salad. It's also terrific with anything cooked with olive oil, garlic and rosemary or parsley.
? Baseball wine: How does Chipper Chardonnay sound? Or Cabernet Glavignon? They’re from a company called Charity Hop, which produces wines for charity using sports figures as the leverage. Chipper is Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves; the second wine is named after his teammate, Tom Glavine. Even Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, has his own wine — 512 Chardonnay.
? Genetics and wine palates: The always erudite Dan Berger writes that genes may have as much to do with how we taste wine and what we like as anything else. For instance, do some people prefer sweet wine to dry wine because it’s part of their DNA, or is sweet vs. dry a learned behavior? It’s a fascinating essay — highly recommended.
? Aussies line up for Grange: This is one of the best known wines down under, a darling with the Wine Magazines and a label that always gets big scores. At the beginning of May, the winery sold all of its 2003 — about 9,000 cases — in one day. Asking price? About US $500 a bottle. The sale reportedly attracted a fair number of speculators, buying the wine to sell later at a profit.
I was tasting wine on Friday with Joe Briggs of Napa’s August Briggs Wines when we heard that Robert Mondavi had died. “It’s the end of an era,” said Briggs. I nodded, and said: “Let me ask you something. Would we even be here now if wasn’t for Mondavi? Not just us tasting, but this place” — and I gestured at the wine bar where I meet visiting winemakers — “and everyone here?”
Briggs didn’t have to wait to answer. “No,” he said. “None of this — us, the other people, this place — would be here if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi.”
It’s easy to overestimate the importance of famous people when they die. If nothing else, it’s part of paying respect. But that’s not the case for Mondavi, who truly was the giant that his obituaries say he was. Mondavi had a hand in almost every major development in the wine world in the last 40 years. He believed California wine could be some of the best in the world, and his perseverance helped California become what it is today. Napa and Sonoma are among the greatest wine regions in the world, rivaling anything in France or Italy.
But that was only part of what Mondavi did. HIs Woodbridge line was among the first grocery store brands that offered quality at a fair price, helping wean entry-level consumers off poorly-made jug wine. He took his company public in 1993 and then sold it a decade later, both presaging major trends in the business. He was also ahead of his time when it came to family squabbles, extravagant excess, the spotlight of celebrity, and cult wines — and these things, too, are all part of today’s wine world.
Perhaps most importantly, Mondavi understood marketing at a time when most California winemakers didn’t even know it existed (and many, sadly, caught up in scores and the Wine Magazines, still don’t). In the late 1960s, Mondavi’s sauvignon blanc wasn’t selling, so he changed the name to fume blanc. Fume was easier to pronounce, and sales improved dramatically.
In all of this, Mondavi’s central theme was that Americans should drink wine, that it should replace iced tea and soft drinks at the dinner table. In this, he succeeded. When I grew up in the 1960s in a comfortable middle class suburb, wine was an exception — both at home and in restaurants. Today, U.S. wine consumption is at record highs, and even family-style chain restaurants have wine lists. When I was in college, it was a big deal to take a girl to dinner and order imported beer. Somehow, I don’t think Lowenbrau would do the trick anymore..
This culture, this lifestyle, this emphasis on wine — it’s Robert Mondavi’s doing. Others played a role, of course, but without Mondavi, Joe Briggs is right. We wouldn’t be here.
I was drinking wine with a couple of friends last weekend and mentioned that they would enjoy the sparkling wine. One of them took a sip and said, yes, that was pretty good. But it doesn’t taste like one of your $10 wines, she said. (Now I know how actors feel when they get stereotyped.)
The wine, of course, was not $10. It was Ruinart, perhaps my favorite bubbly and not cheap at all at $70. And, to add insult to injury to my reputation, the other bottle of wine that night was Domaine Borgeot Puligny-Montrachet Les Charmes 1999, which cost around $65.
Which raises the question: Is there something to these wines that makes them worth that much money? The answer is yes, but the point is not how much they cost, but what they deliver.